The Liberal party's Newcastle branch has picked business manager Jenny Barrie as its lord mayoral candidate after a pre-selection campaign marred by accusations of sabotage and illegal donations.
Ms Barrie, the party's Newcastle State Electoral Conference (SEC) vice-president, beat Blake Keating 21-13 in a pre-selection vote on Monday night for December's twice-delayed Newcastle council elections.
She also defeated Mr Keating, the University of Newcastle Liberal Students president, 20-14 in a ballot to decide who will head the party's ticket in Ward 2.
Katrina Wark, who ran against Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon in the 2019 federal election, won pre-selection in Ward 3 over Henry Maher.
Party sources said the results marked a defeat for Liberal councillor Brad Luke, who is not running but has backed Mr Keating as a hard-right factional candidate in the pre-selection contest.
Mr Keating is a staffer in the Fairfield office of hard-right firebrand senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
Liberal state executive members from the centre right and left factions who participated in the ballot voted for Ms Barrie and Ms Wark, though neither is factionally aligned.
The ballot followed allegations and counter-allegations last month that illegal donors were present at a $40-a-head Liberal event at the swank Newcastle Club.
Party sources said at the time that the allegations were an attempt to "sabotage" SEC president Suzanne Evans, who authorised the invitations to the June 9 event.
Ms Barrie lost to Charlestown MP Jodie Harrison in the 2019 NSW election, eking out a 0.5-point swing which barely put a dent in Labor's 13-point margin.
Mr Keating lost to Tim Crakanthorp and suffered a 10.3-point swing against the Liberals in the same election.
The Liberals face an uphill battle in the mayoral ballot but will hope Ms Barrie can at least retain their sole council seat in Ward 2, which is being vacated by Cr Luke.
Councillors Carol Duncan (Labor) and Kath Elliott (Newcastle Independents) are also contesting Ward 2.
Ms Wark will contest Ward 3 against Cr Nelmes, Labor No.2 Cr Peta Winney-Baartz, the Newcastle Independents' Dave Wild, the Greens' Sinead Francis-Coan and community newspaper publisher Mark Brooker in a vote which will have a bearing on whether Labor retains its council majority.
The 13-member council comprises three representatives from each of the four wards plus the lord mayor.
The Newcastle Herald reported on Monday that Labor had reshuffled its line-up for the September 4 council election.
Labor is expected to win enough votes in each ward to claim at least one councillor spot. A conservative candidate, either from the Liberals or Independents, is expected to also win a position, leaving the third place to be fought out between the Greens, conservatives and Labor's second picks.
In 2017, these battles favoured Labor in wards three and four, handing them a rare outright majority in the 13-member council chamber.
Repeating that feat may prove a difficult challenge, but Cr Nelmes' profile could help the party's chances of retaining two councillors in Ward 3.
If she wins the lord mayoral vote, Cr Nelmes will vacate the ward position, leaving Labor's No.3, Margaret Wood, to claim a spot if the party again reaches the vote quota for two positions.
If Labor wins only one councillor in each of the four wards, it will lose its majority, even if Cr Nelmes retains the lord mayoralty.
If Labor achieves three councillors across wards three and four and the lord mayor's position, it will have six councillors and likely will rely on co-operation from the Greens to pursue its agenda.
The Liberals are hoping to improve their showing across the wards after a dismal performance in 2017, when the party suspended lord mayoral candidate David Compton and two Ward 3 candidates at the 11th hour over "irregularities" in their nomination forms.
The battle for the three councillor positions in Ward 1, which stretches from the inner-city to Mayfield and includes Stockton, could be a close four-way contest if the Liberals improve on their 2017 vote.
The party polled poorly in Ward 1 in the shadow of the Compton saga and the 2014 ICAC inquiry into illegal campaign donations, but five years earlier the Liberals garnered more votes than any other party in the ward.
Cr Church and Cr Mackenzie attracted a similar number of votes behind Labor in 2017 in Ward 1.
A revived Liberal showing this time could put pressure on one of them to retain their seat.
The Newcastle Independents will run Cr Elliott in Ward 2, Cr Allan Robinson in Ward 4 and former detective David Wild in Ward 3 after the retirement of Cr Andrea Rufo.
Lambton community newspaper operator Mark Brooker is running as an independent in Ward 3.
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